5 Things Short Stories Have Taught Me
Recently, I have started writing short stories. It started as a side project with a group of friends, then I saw the #52weeks52stories hashtag challenge on Twitter.
Shifting focus from novel length pieces to shorter stories was a lot harder than I thought it would be and it has definitely taught me some things.
1. Walk before you run
For me, jumping straight into a novel was probably not the smartest move. The ideas, the world, the plot and the characters were all there wanting to be told. I had my spreadsheet of detailed plot points and chapter arcs. I plotted the character arcs and even detailed what the antagonist was up to. I was set... right?!
So, why was I having so much difficulty translating my brain rambles into the story I wanted? Turns out, I needed to go back and learn to walk. To refine the basics of my craft before delving into a bigger and more complex story.
Writing short stories has given me the ability, and motivation, to focus on one specific aspect of story writing and fine tune it. It turns out that when something is off in a short story, it is super noticeable. This means I can see when it is working, and more often when it is not.
For this year, I will be trying to focus on an aspect of story writing for each month. Last month it was setting, and this month it is showing the conflict between thought and action.
Other skills I will work on this year:
I probably should do a month dedicated to commas and grammar *shudders*.
2. Get lost in the moments
This one was hard for me to learn. Plotting can kill the magic of the story.
Oh, it hurts even typing that.
Before you scroll down to the comments to hate on me, I want to clarify: OVER plotting can kill a story. I still have a sense of the overall story and the major plot points, but not plotting every aspect of each chapter allows me some freedom to explore the character, the setting and to find fresh aspects to incorporate.
None of my short stories have had a spreadsheet, nor detailed outlines, barely a whisper of character charts, and despite my dubious outlook they turned out fine... sometimes better than fine. So, I guess short stories have taught me to let go, to relax. I don't need to plan everything, surprises are good, even for the writer.
3. Subtext is key
When you have so few words to tell a story you need to learn to use subtext fast. It's not an easy lesson to learn. Making each word count, forcing each description to weave into an overall idea or emotion - it's hard stuff.
During this month (as I said earlier) I am working on creating and showing a conflict between thoughts (and emotions) and actions. This has drastically improved my subtext game. I examine how each sentence can have unspoken qualities, how the actions they show tell the reader something about the character.
Now that I have learned how important this lesson is, I now need to learn how to do it well.
4. Less is more
Much like number three, this one comes from a need to limit the word count. With a few exemptions, all of my short stories want to hulk through the short story word limit into something bigger. And it is hella frustrating. Finding the backbone of the story, the parts that must be told, and then telling them in the most concise way possible is challenging. But, if you can pull it off it feels so good.
So, short story writing has taught me how to examine a plot, a scene and strip it back to bare bones - the essentials. This has definitely helped me see the dead weight in my novel WIPs (Work in Progress). And removing dead weight makes the story much more polished and better paced.
And as I stated before, pacing is something I need to work on.
5. Setting is a character
I found that a lot of the time my characters are on their own. I honesty have no idea why, but to avoided the dreaded navel gaze I had to learn to use my setting as a secondary character. This lesson goes hand in hand with subtext - the idea is that your setting should have its own purpose, maybe it's to test the protagonist, to provide them with obstacles, comfort, or memories. The setting should be doing something.
Short stories have made me more aware of the impact that a well chosen description has on the mood and tension of a scene. It also has forced me to think about what reoccurring images and symbols will work best to add depth to the story. What would my character actually notice? What emotion is my character feeling and how can my setting emphasize that? Can my descriptions of a tree add drama or tension? Should it?
These lessons have definitely improved my story telling.
Have you ventured into the exciting world of short stories?
Learned anything from your stories?
Let me know in the comments.
Until next time: have fun learning from your stories.
After years of standing in front of classrooms, pubescent children trying desperately not to learn, I still find the blank page the most intimidating creature of all.
Spit-balls, fart jokes and inaccurate genitalia drawings have nothing on the nerve-wracking awkwardness of following a dream. But here I am… Post One. Or as I lovingly refer to it “The time it took 30 minutes to write a sentence.”
I have been writing for as long as I can remember… which to be fair isn’t that impressive of a statement seeing as I have the mind of a pasta strainer. Things that you think are too important to fall through the holes can, and often do, fall through into the gurgling sink of my forgetfulness. But, there are brief memories of writing from when I was younger. Stories of seals, vampires and, well, some fan fiction that never needs to see the light of day. I always enjoyed hearing, reading and creating stories. Even when I went through the too-much-eyeliner phase; writing still had an inescapable grip on me. So when I started this journey, and taking my writing seriously, I thought that I had all I needed:
However, I quickly found that writing is so much more than that. It is knowing what’s going on in the world. It is an opportunity for expression: a chance to say something about the world, highlight its flaws and qualities. It is a community: a network of friends who challenge and support you. It is asking the hard questions about what is important to you. It is revising your work until your eyes bleed, then handing it to others who show you all the things you missed. It is business: marketing, data analysis, trends *shudder*.
It is a lot of work.
That was one of the main things that surprised me about starting on this journey; that is, for something that claims to be an introvert activity, there is a lot of interaction with others.
But fear not. This interaction is the reason I haven’t fled in fear. The community of writers… there is nothing like it. Even in teaching, where collaboration and resource sharing is vital, there isn’t this unreserved desire to build up and share. So, dear reader, if you are thinking of writing: find yourself a community. Twitter, Tumbler, Facebook… there are a number of different avenues to find your community.
In all the classes I attended on creative writing, not one mentioned the benefits of the online community. Since joining I have been pushed to experiment, explain and just plain old write more words.
And don’t freak out if you’re worried about it starting… we all were – and still are.
The community has taught me:
The laughable part is that with the very same minds that we use to harm ourselves, we are building each other up.
So, push through it. You can do it. It might be harder or more complex than you imagined. But..
You. Can. Do. It.
Now, go write. Who knows… in a week we could be Twitter buddies …in a year I might be reading your published work.
Remember: Like wine we all get better with age. What you couldn’t write last year, you might be able to today.
On that note, I’m off to grab a glass of celebratory wine. First blog post written.